Ebrahim Raisi, the incoming president of Iran, has sent pundits searching for information on the little-known figure in the West. A few days later, some information has emerged. Two leading human rights groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have called for an investigation of Raisi for his role in the killing of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
Egregious as the mass murders were, Raisi has a long history of human rights violations. He is a graduate of the Haqqani Madrassa, a seminary established by the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammed-Taqi Meshbah Yazdi and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. Meshbah Yazdi. These religious leaders considered Ayatollah Khomeini too liberal and hoped that Haqqani graduates would influence a kind of Iranian “dark state” to push the government into a pure Shite theocracy. Jannati, a mentor to many in the Haqqani Circle, opposed religious minorities, other ethnic minorities, and secularism. While they targeted all government branches, the judiciary was most crucial.
Raisi, a protégé of Jannati, started his career in 1981 as a prosecutor of Karaj and Hamadan Provinces, where he took a leading role in the persecution of minorities, especially the Bahais, then a major target of the new regime. Among his better-known misdeeds was the execution of seven Bahais who were horribly tortured before their death. Reuters reported at the time that each of the seven was shot at least seven times. However, most of his prosecutorial work was conducted in conjunction with the revolutionary courts. Ayatollah Khomeini founded these in 1979 and appointed the notorious Sadeq Khalkhali as the supreme justice. Known as “the blood judge” and “hanging judge,” Khalkhali had a penchant for the death penalty and encouraged torture and abuses of prisoners, mostly members of the Mojaheed el Khalq (MEK), communists, and other regime opponents. Witnesses testified that Raisi was present during many of these interrogations and, like his boss, was quick to dispense the death sentence. In a 2018 interview, he defended his role in “fighting the enemies of the state.”
In 1985 Raisi moved to Tehran to serve as the deputy prosecutor of the capital. In this capacity he joined the so-called Death Committee, which Khomeini ordered Khalkhali to assemble in order to “review” the status of MEK members, communists, and other opponents held various prisons, including Evin and Gohardasht. Overturning their previous sentences, the Committee ordered the execution of some five to eight thousand prisoners. The highly respected international lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who investigated the massacre, found it to be the second-worse violation of prisoners’ rights since the end of World War II, superseded only by the mass killing in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Raisi’s performance impressed Ayatollah Khomeini, who named him as a special extrajudicial envoy to the provinces of Lorestan, Semnan, and Kermanshah. His task was to expeditiously execute the political prisoners, which, according to Khomeini’s appointment letter, exceeded the capacity of the officials on the ground. According to some human rights groups, up to thirty thousand people perished during these political purges.
Climbing the legal ladder, Raisi served as the chief prosecutor of Tehran from 1989 to 1994, whereupon he moved to serve as the General Inspection Office to fight corruption. Ending in 2004, his tenure was marred by controversy. Raisi protected his conservative allies whose embezzlement scandals preoccupied the country. Arguably, the largest case of its kind involved Morteza Rafighdoost, the brother of Mohsen Rafighdoost, the head of the giant Mostazafan Foundation and the former minister of the Revolutionary Guards. Morteza, along with others, embezzled a large sum of money from the Saderat Bank but was never mentioned in the ensuing trial. On the other hand, Raisi played a role in convicting a reformist mayor of Tehran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, for alleged corruption. Raisi held Karbaschi personally responsible for the landslide victory of the moderate president Mohammed Khatami in 1997.
Raisi’s services to the hardliners paved his way into the inner circle of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who appointed many in the Haqqani Circle to positions of importance. Raisi also had a very close relations with the Revolutionary Guards and other security elements, a link that was deepened by his ties to Mujtaba Khamenei, the son of Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader who was unofficially in charge of the security apparatus. Undoubtedly, this connection elevated Raisi to the position of deputy chief justice between 2004 and 2014, given that Ayatollah Khamenei appointed the chief justice.
Raisi’s ten-year tenure on the bench saw a marked deterioration in human rights and religious freedoms. Pushing the agenda of the security forces, Raisi was keen on punishing political opponents and dissidents. He accepted forced confession obtained under torture as evidence in court and played a key role in the persecution of Green Movement protestors against the fraudulent 2009 election. Raisi took a very strong position against women who defied modesty ordinances, including veiling. That should have come as no surprise given that Raisi was also on the board of an organization created to review peoples’ adherence to Qur’anic precepts of behavior.
During his time as attorney general (2014–16), Raisi aggressively used the revolutionary courts to broaden the range of what was considered “national security.” He also took an increased role in promoting a so-called Islamic human rights program, headquartered in the Office of the Judiciary and called the High Council of Human Rights (HCHR). The organization was created to fight the international norms of human rights, and in 2015 Raisi bestowed an Islamic Human Rights Award on Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the head of the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) in Iraq. Amnesty International accused the PMF of kidnapping and killing Christians, which was part of a campaign to force them out of their ancestral villages on which Shiites subsequently settled.
Upon becoming the supreme justice in 2019, Raisi fully implemented the Haqqani-driven principles of jurisprudence. Among the targets were religious minorities, including Jews, Christians, Bahais, and others. Converts to Christianity, considered apostates, have posed a special threat and received severe punishment, such as long-term prison terms and death sentences. Like the supreme leader, Raisi considers the home church movement where converts worship an existential threat to the regime and a tool of “Zionist manipulation.”
Equally concerning, Raisi ordered the revolutionary courts to try environmental activists who exposed the government’s degradation of the environment. The activists were found guilty on trumped-up national security charges, such as espionage for Israel and the United States.
Raisi also returned to the harsh treatment of political dissidents and prisoners of conscience from his early days as a prosecutor. A State Department report listed common methods of torture: “Threats of execution and rape, forced tests of virginity and ‘sodomy,’ sleep deprivation, electroshocks (including genitals), burnings, the use of pressure positions, and severe and repeated beatings.”
Especially worrisome was a sharp increase in the use of death penalty for political transgression. For instance, participants in public demonstrations who were charged with “enmity against God” (moharebeh) and “spreading corruption on earth” (efsad fil arz), capital offenses in the Iranian penal code. Journalists have been also sentenced to death. In one notorious case, the journalist Ruhollah Zam, who was kidnapped in Turkey and sentenced to death for “spreading corruption on earth.” Execution of minors has also gone up despite the fact that Iran is a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of a Child, which prohibits the execution of child offenders under the age of 18. The high number of juveniles caught up in Raisi’s reign of terror is reflective of the fact that young people have dominated the protests against the regime in recent years. While Iran is a global leader in the death penalty per capita, Raisi turned it into an ultimate tool of political suppression in a regime that has little popular support.
There is little doubt that, as president, Raisi would continue his brutal legacy of human rights violations, aggravating the already precarious position of political opponents and ethnic minorities. A United Nations investigation is needed to bring justice to the families of those who perished in the 1988 massacre and of countless other victims. Such an inquiry can send a strong signal that the international community is serious about protecting the Iranian people from a brutal leader whom many call the “other blood judge.”